Clever? Check. Innovative? Check. Listenable? Check. Thrilling? Check. Adjectives that come to mind when reflecting on last evening’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert, conducted by Music Director Robert Spano. The program was an inspiration and it presented works that showcased Spano’s support of new composers, and his ability to achieve great results with a large-scale Romantic-era Symphony.
The concert began with the Atlanta premiere of “City of Ghosts,” by Australian composer Alex Turley (b. 1995). It’s an eerie work, containing layers of sound, with familiar instruments playing in ways not usually heard. As performed by a chamber-sized orchestra, Spano brought a clarity to the sound that served the music perfectly. Turley says his music is about a city devoid of people in a supernatural way. He captures that scenario beautifully- there is no disconnect between what one hears and what Turley’s program is. The finale of the piece contains colorful passages for the brass, and Maestro Spano kept them restrained so as not to disturb the ethereal spirit of the music. Turley is sophisticated in his use of percussion; it is not just used for punctuation, but rather it is integral to the overall sound. It does not hover above the music and seems not to be included just for the sake of inclusion, as can be the case with some contemporary music. There is an excerpt of “City” here: https://soundcloud.com/alexturley. It is the premiere performance by the Melbourne symphony with Spano conducting. The performance last evening was more atmospheric and technically proficient, but it does give a sense of the power of Turley’s music.
Roberto Diaz then performed Jennifer Higdon’s 2015 Viola Concerto, which is a stunning neo-Romantic work that is accessible, listenable, and approachable, yet with enough power to pack some punch. Higdon was one of the initial members of Spano’s “Atlanta School,” which has fostered the development of composers who write music that is evolutionary, with clear references to the Romantic and Impressionistic, rather revolutionary. Some have argued that Higdon’s concerto is deeply rooted in American music. It is a rich and gorgeous work that shows a great understanding of the viola’s sound, so that the accompaniment is also complimentary to the instrument, rather than antagonistic. And in the performance, Spano and the ASO provided as subtle and sophisticated support as one could ask. Never once, did the balance between the darkness of the solo viola collide with a too-loud orchestra. Diaz’s playing was miraculous, technically and musically. He is not a showman when he plays, and because he was playing from the score, he rarely interacted with the audience, but he connected where it really mattered- in the music. Of course, Diaz has been the principal violists in four major American Symphony Orchestras, so he seems to intuitively understand what it takes to have a successful partnership with an orchestra while playing as a soloist. It is notable that Diaz is the President and CEO of the renowned Philadelphia- based Curtis Institute of Music. There was applause between movements of the concerto, which seemed at the time to be in recognition of the ASO and Diaz, so it wasn’t as distracting as it might have been. But it did set a precedent for the final work on the program.
Berlioz’s 1830 “Symphony fantastique” is a masterpiece of the Romantic period, a role that is a bit unusual for a French composer. It is frankly programmatic and its five movements tell the tale of love, love-lost, torment, and maybe a touch of madness. The first movement resembles an operatic overture, giving the backstory to the phantasmagorical journey. Unfortunately, this performance was marred by a very unsteady start, as though the ASO was caught off-guard by the downbeat. But after the initial rockiness, the ASO musicians regained their footing and everything came together. The second movement (A Ball) has a dreamy waltz-like theme that builds on the contemplation of the first movement. The second and third movement (Scene is the Country) provided an opportunity for the ASO winds to again to demonstrate their beautiful sound. The performance of the fourth (March to the Execution) and fifth (Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath) movements were ferocious. Berlioz took full advantage of the orchestra’s sound possibilities and utilized them to the utmost. The rumbling bass drum, the ominous tympani, and the off-stage bell were impressive. The low strings were as growlingly forceful as one could want. The finale is a harrowing richly orchestrated chorale-like meditation on the “Dies Irae.” In spite of being highlighted at the end, the brass section was well controlled and never overwhelmed the rest of the orchestra. The ASO and Spano were at the top of their performing game here and it was a thrilling ride. The full-house (third week in a row at Symphony Hall) again erupted in applause between movements, save for the final two. One can disagree with the need to show appreciation so often, but it was difficult to ignore the grand performances in this program.